Saturday, November 3, 2012

May be one day photos of the whole Bulgarian Second Division will be printed. So far, no luck. The only attempt of introducing Second Division teams to the whole country was done in 1976-77 – 6 teams appeared in the national weekly 'Start'. Not even a glimpse, for at that time 40 clubs played in the Second Division, or 'B Group', as it was named in Bulgaria. The division was divided in two leagues, Northern and Southern, at the beginning of the 1960s and remained so, although the number of the teams varied. Anyhow, leagues so big provided secure environment for many clubs, lacking big money, or ambition, or both. 'Eternal', so to say, members of the second level. Such clubs were the bulk, with few 'in between' clubs, too strong for B, but too weak for A level, frequently moving up and down, and the rest were clubs from small towns, just happy to be high in the football order, and most often concerned only with survival. The 1976-77 was typical, yet, with one peculiarity: the Northern B Group appeared stronger, largely because both relegated in 1976 from top flight happened to be from the North. The rest was historical 'argument': 9 clubs from the North used to play in First Division, but only 5 in the South. However, most of these clubs played briefly top level football, and very long ago – most of them settled among the 'eternal' B Group teams also long ago. Still, the North looked tougher – 4 clubs were expected to fight for the promotional spot compared to a single candidate in the South. Predictions are rarely fulfilled, or at least not fully: the season was bleak; expected clubs won, but not in the way it was predicted. In the both leagues two clubs went shoulder to shoulder from beginning to end, and the winners were decided only by goal difference. In both groups the top two clubs left the rest comfortably behind, but numbers are misleading: in fact, the winners struggled and were not convincing. It was just a battle between quite weak clubs and those having made fewer mistakes ended at the top.

Dobrudzha (Tolbuchin, today – Dobrich) finished 7th. Front row, from left: Pl. Ganev, Kirilov, Milchev, Kondov, Radev, Valev.

Middle: Sp. Kirov – coach, Manolov, P. Kirov, Spassov, Zhelev, Doychev, Bozhkov, G. Kostov – assistant coach.

Top: Petrov, Atanassov, Simeonov, Kolev, Paskalev, Haydarliev, Petkov, Penchev, B. Kostov.

A typical 'eternal' club. The best years of Dobrudzha were back in the 1960s, when they played a few years in First Division, but after that they were simply happy to stay in the middle of Second Division table. And their squad was fine example of the 'eternals': mainly experienced, inambitious second league regulars, aided by few first-division rejects (Milchev, Simeonov, Radev, Kondov), who bitterly disappointed their former clubs, but down in second-division provided sufficient class. The only name worth mentioning is Ivan Haydarliev, young and promising full-back, who was soon taken by Slavia (Sofia), became one of the best Bulgarian defenders of the 1980s, and even played for the national team. But 1976-77 was just the beginning of his career and his presence did not shake the sleepy comfort of Dobrudzha.

Another 'eternal' climbed quite high this season: Bdin (Vidin) finished third.

Standing, from left: Zdravko Dushanov – coach, Ivan Georgiev, Zhory Grigorov, Petar Topchev, Yordan Kirilov, Nikola Gromkov, Stoyan Stoyanov, Angel Yordanov, Ivan Tzvetkov – assistant coach.

Sitting: Borislav Nikolov, Dimitar Kukavanov, Dimitar Mumdzhiev, Plamen Slavchev, Venetzko Nikolov, Ognyan Marinov, Yordan Petkov, Assen Bratkov, Nikolay Kolev.

The club is named after the mideval Bdin city-fortress, which eventually became the city of Vidin in the North-West tip of Bulgaria. The last glory of the place came in , during the Serbo-Bulgarian war. The Bulgarian army stationed in the fortress, bravely defended itself from superior Serbian dispatch and charged into devastating counter-attack. It was like a football match: on the other shore of Danube river Romanians gathered to watch. They waved flags and cheered the Bulgarians. No wonder football is often compared to war, but the club took no inspiration from its own name. They played one season in the First Division, but it was in the distant 1948-49, and after finishing last settled in the more hospitable second level. As every other 'eternal', Bdin had experienced squad, but really no flame. Well respected coach was at the helm and two players 'with names' appeared – Topchev and Mumdzhiev. Quite enough for a solid presence in the league, but Bdin was not really a contender: they finished 4 points behind the top two. Typical, typical... coach Dushanov had his best years in the past; goalkeeper Topchev played for CSKA four or five years back, and Mumdzhiev was quite promising Lokomotiv (Sofia) midfielder, even was included few times in the national-team selections. But... none really established himself, quickly faded and aged as a 'unfulfilled promise'. By now it was helping second-division club with experience. One thing an 'eternal' club inevitably does is records – it is largely be default, for since the club plays 'forever' in the league, so are the better players of it. They collect numbers and eventually come to the top of all-time lists. The goalkeeper Nikola Gromkov for example – he was nearing the end his playing days, and was a reserve by now, thanks to the arrival of the 'star' Petar Topchev, but already he was in the top ten all-time list. And remained there: with 353 championship matches, Gromkov was 6th in all-time appearances in 1980. Two more Bdin players were in the top ten too, and Ognyan Marinov with 96 goals was 5th in the list of all-time scorers. And way ahead in the future was even better: in the 1989 all-time list, which no longer separated North and South, but it was combined, three of this Bdin squad were in the top ten: Yordan Kirilov - 5th with 468 appearances, Zhory Grigorov - 6th with 443, and Ivan Georgiev - 7th with 439.

Records for some, desire for bigger things for others. Etar (Veliko Tirnovo) finished 2nd and missed promotion only because of worse goal-difference. Etar not only knew better – they were quite well settled in First Division and even played in the UEFA Cup – but wanted to return where they 'belonged'. The trouble was rebuilding...

Sitting, from left: Petar Petrov, Petko Tzanev, Georgy Vassilev, Krassimir Traykov, Vladimir Daskalov, Stefan Stefanov, Ivan Panayotov.

Middle row: Sasho Aleksandrov, Miroslav Gospodinov, Krassimir Kalchev, Nikola Velkov, Georgy Iliev, Petar Stefanov, Kadir Belaliev, Iliya Tabakov.

Top: Petar Aleksiev – coach, Iliay Marinov, Tzanko Hutov, Krassimir Yakimov, Bisser Hazday, Boyko Dimitrov, Kiril Rabchev, Petar Haralampiev – assistant coach.

The team aged dangerously about 2-3 years back and most of the key players either retired, or moved to other clubs. The remaining were experienced, but so-so, players like the goalkeeper Petar Petrov. The newcomers were either second-stringers of other clubs, like Tabakov and Rabchev, or young players, for whom there was no place in big clubs, like Bisser Hazday, who came from Levski (Sofia). It was telling that the better known players of the squad failed to become starters in their former clubs. As a whole, the current squad was of lower quality then the one of few years back, but habbit took over, as often is the case... former reserves made starters, counting more on their experience than on their real ability. The coach was good, but hardly among the best coaches and his squad was similar. Even second division was tough for them and they failed to win promotion a second season in a row. Came close, but low scoring and leaky defense doomed them to 2nd place. Really, the club needed to get rid of most of the team and get entirely new squad, but they failed to do so not only this year, but in the next five. At least five... Anyhow, here is a player worth a note: Georgy Vassilev, 30 years-old veteran midfielder from the good old days, and fresh Magisterial graduate in History from Veliko Tirnovo University. He was included now and then in the national team not so long ago. At 30, he was not all that old, but he retired at the end of the season – end of story for the player. Not so for the coach – Georgy Vassilev became one of the best and most successful Bulgarian coaches. He still is, for he is still working. The player Vassilev ended on sour note, but the coach Vassilev made Etar champions. But that is in the distant future – in the spring of 1977 Etar had to stay in second-league.

Etar were unconvincing, but also unlucky. The lucky ones were Cherno more (Varna). Relegated in 1976, they managed to return to First Division after only one year stay in the lower echelon. They squirreled 52 points, the same as their rivals Etar. Both teams finished with exactly the same numbers: 21 wins, 10 ties, and 7 losses each. Cherno more got first place thanks to better goal-difference: 67:26 vs Etar's 63:34. Not overwhelming winners, but winners.

Back to top flight: bottom, from left: Dimitar Marashliev, Ivan Andreev, Todor Yordanov, Rafi Rafiev, Vasko Vladimirov, Ivan Stoyanov, Svetozar Svetozarov, Ivan Donchev, Damyan Georgiev.

Standing: Ivan Vassilev – coach, Georgy Zhekov, Todor Marev, Roman Kerekovsky, Yancho Bogomilov, Kolyo Dimov, Georgy Velinov, Ivan Ivanov, Dimo Denev, Krassimir Diamandiev, Abil Bilyalov – assistant coach.

Cherno more were slightly better version of Etar: same problems, same lack of solutions. Unlike Etar, the champions had glorious past: in the first half of 20th century Varna was leading Bulgarian football. Ticha, Vladislav, and Shipchenksi sokol won championships, had the best players. Then the Communsts took power and transformed everything. It is unclear exactly why, but most probably Ticha and Vladislav were amalgamated in 1945 into TP45. Few more name changes happened until the club was named Cherno more and remained so. It was also attached to the Navy, which made him the leading club in Varna, but this 'sponsorship' was also its perpetual misfortune: the Navy was still part of the whole military pyramid, governed by the Ministry of Defense, and since football mirrored the structures of the 'sponsors', Cherno more was subordinate to CSKA. They were able to snatch players from non-military clubs, but only players CSKA did not want. CSKA was taking whoever they wanted from Cherno more easily – after all, Cherno more were suppliers for 'big brother'. Suppliers of points too... the role of Cherno more was to help CSKA in any way – to make life miserable for the CSKA's competitors and put no resistance to CSKA. There was no way Cherno more to be a real factor in Bulgarian football, to build and preserve winning squad. What they became was something else: 'a staple'. Constant member of First Division, mid-table club, which managed to build relatively strong squad in the second half of the 1960s. It was unthinkable that Cherno more would be relegated, but eventually the old squad aged and players started to retire. The replacement was not of the same caliber , consisting mostly of 'empty promises', quickly fading away. The inevitable decline was invisible at first, for the new talent usually had one-two good seasons, thus, the team still had some bite – few remaining veterans plus few promising youngsters were capable to keep the club afloat, although it was clear it was disjointed team – some performed, others – didn't. And finally he unthinkable happened, for no apparent reason – the team seemed to be still 'promising', still 'potentially talented', but finished last in 1975-76. And because the squad was relatively young, no need of radical change was seen: the youngsters were still expected to bloom and reveal their real talent. By names, Cherno more looked more than solid: Todor Marev, a national team player, was already one of the best Bulgarian full-backs and was to remain so for many years to come. It was not in some distant past when Damyan Georgiev was considered potential national team player – the right-winger was 27 years-old by now, hardly a hopeless veteran, although... he was no longer improving, reaching deadly plateau. A whole bunch was quiet recently playing for various Bulgarian junior national teams. Others were about 25 years-old, but already vastly experienced, and considered solid and reliable. The problem was the fact of having so many former junior national team players, or coming close to the national team – Todor Atanassov, Rafiev, Donchev, Svetozarov, Diamandiev. Add Marev and Damyan Georgiev, who actually played for the A-national team. Marev was only 23 years old... add Yancho Bogomilov, who was barely over 20, but was pushing for regular spot since 1975. Relegation was seen as freakish misfortune, which would be quickly corrected – the youngsters will bloom in no time, any minute now, no worry. Little was changed in the squad, yet, the additions were very interesting: CSKA occasionally helped satellites by sending them players no longer needed or youngsters needing playing practice, but not fit yet for CSKA. It was very questionable 'help' – rejects hardly improve and when youngsters showed real improvement, CSKA immediately took them back. One cannot build solid long-lasting team with hand-outs. Cherno more got from CSKA Dimitar Marashliev, 30-years old former national team left-winger, in decline for the last 3 seasons. No longer needed in CSKA, he was sent to Varna to taste second-division. Must have been a bitter pill for one, who played at the 1970 World Cup finals to trot on hard pitches of towns difficult to find on the map. I am not certain what kind of help was Marashliev to Cherno more, for he retired from football immediately after the end of 1976-77 – quite early, so it may have been due to disappointment both for the club and for the player.

The other new recruit was entirely different story: Georgy Velinov was 19-years old, so he was due for military service and easily recruited by Cherno more. But he was already noticed as one the youngest players to debut in top Bulgarian football – he appeared in 5 matches in the 1974-75 season, playing for his native club Dunav (Rousse). So far, the goalkeeper was considered somewhat 'unproven' talent, and may be because of the ambivalent judgment Cherno more was able to take him: 'big brother' was not interested. And it was really difficult to evaluate Velinov at that time: Dunav (Rousse) was in sharp decline, in fact they were relegated in 1976-77, and his appearance between the goalposts was seen more as a desperate measure. The boy was impressive, but... only when compared to his pathetic teammates. So, was he really talented, or was he temporarily shining thanks to the excitement of been chosen to play for the first team? The competition apparently thought in those lines, and Cherno more was able to get Velinov without fuss. He immediately established himself in the team and by the end of the 1976-77 the revues were more than favourable. As a career choice, Velinov moved wisely – if he stayed with Dunav, very likely he would have been perished; with Cherno more he was going up. Eventually CSKA took a craving for him, grabbed him, and Velinov became one of the best all-time Bulgarian goalkeepers. Which did nothing good for Cherno more, except helping them to win promotion. Promotion by a split hair really... Cherno more never reached the strong position they had in the 1960s.